Sometimes "boots on the ground" are better than using complicated apps and machinery

2 months ago 16
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A complex technology solution isn't always the right approach, especially in uncertain times. Having a human checking on things can help fill in technology gaps.

cars on a ship

Image: SvedOliver/Shutterstock

I recently ordered a new pickup truck from a large manufacturer. The ordering process was straightforward, and the dealership provided me with a Vehicle ID Number that I could use on the manufacturer's website to track the order's progress. Like most auto OEMs, this manufacturer was hit by the semiconductor shortage. While my forecasted build date shifted a few times, I was able to watch the status of my truck and ultimately breathed a sigh of relief when it moved to "Shipped," assuming I'd escaped any significant delays.

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The web-based tracker provided an estimated ship date, and my dealer was able to track the truck as it made a cross-country train journey, passing a few dozen miles from the dealership to a holding area where the truck would transition from the rails to a vehicle transport. At this point, my truck went into a black hole of sorts, with neither the manufacturer, the dealer nor any of the web-based tracking tools able to predict when or if it would ship. Paraphrasing the dealer, "We won't know it has shipped until it shows up at my doorstep."

My experience mirrors that of at least several hundred truck fans who gather virtually on various websites to complain and compare notes on any information or tracking tools they've discovered, including reverse engineering some of the company's public-facing APIs in an attempt to track their trucks. Several have also taken to Twitter or contacting company executives, receiving a response ranging from feigned concern to frequent telephone calls from "executive representatives."

I have no current professional relationship with the manufacturer, but I can imagine that at some point, a request has arrived at IT demanding that some sort of public-facing tracking system be built. In my imagined scenario, a hastily convened group of engineers, architects and designers diligently whiteboarded a technical solution to this problem, asked partners for interface specifications, developed a cost model and returned a 9- to 18-month roadmap and seven-figure price tag for a "technically correct" solution to this problem.

Simple is sometimes better

The major problem with a tech-heavy solution to this problem is that the underlying issues may very well be fixed in the next few months, while costs compound due to lost sales, angry customers and expensive mitigations like having talented individuals chase down customer complaints.

Abandoning one's "enterprise IT" mindset for a moment, a variety of relatively simple solutions to this problem present themselves. Merely sending an employee to the distribution center with a prepaid smartphone would allow them to assess the situation, contact customers directly and perhaps even send a snapshot of their hotly-anticipated vehicle with a note that "we have people on the ground expediting the situation." A seemingly banal statement that suddenly seems much more factual when accompanied by a photo of the actual vehicle.

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The company already has sophisticated tracking APIs and links the VIN to a customer, so minimal automation that even your humble columnist is capable of concocting could allow someone to capture a picture, scan the QR code already on the window sticker, and email customers a quick automated update.

While this type of job is probably not a role best filled by a senior leader or the CIO, there are likely several employees who would consider this a bit of an adventure, and a chance to "firefight" a problem with significant customer impact would be a blessing rather than a burden. Furthermore, a few flights, hotel nights and startup-style supporting technology will cost a pittance compared with a "real" system implementation, not to mention lost sales and customer complaint mitigation.

Eyes and ears versus bits and bytes

In another incident several years ago, one of my clients was developing a new product unlike anything they'd ever offered, and something new to the industry as a whole. In these types of projects, gathering customer feedback is critical, and we strongly encouraged the company to deploy trained researchers "on the ground" to observe critical parts of the sales and delivery process and talk to end customers.

For various reasons, the client declined our advice and instead used a sophisticated digital tool from a customer survey vendor to perform a convoluted Net Promoter Score calculation. As one would expect with a new product, customer uptake was relatively low, and despite two decimal places of precision, an NPS of 7.45 told us very little about whether the company could deliver the product at scale and what needed to be tweaked before launch. An expensive effort to get to that point was largely neutralized since it was assumed "boots on the ground" were superfluous rather than the best way to validate whether the work to date could drive market results.

As a changing world creates all manner of challenges and opportunities, avoid the urge to see everything through an enterprise technology lens. Call it startup thinking, an entrepreneurial mindset or whatever other moniker works for you, as long as it allows you to see that a pair or two of intelligent hands, eyes and ears can sometimes solve problems more effectively and efficiently than even the best technology.

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